Monday, May 6

Kitchen to Classroom: Food and Agricultural History

The Ward family of Greene County, GA. Photograph by Jack Delano, 1941, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

"Kitchen to Classroom" is a weekly dispatch from our postdoctoral fellow, Angela Jill Cooley. You can follow Professor Cooley on Twitter at @foodandrace.

In a recent issue of Agricultural History, Georgia State University professor Clifford M. Kuhn describes efforts to preserve food in Depression-era Greene County, Georgia. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal included many programs intended to improve rural lives, but historians often criticize these initiatives for favoring landowning whites and mechanical agriculture—thereby increasing inequality and accelerating rural migration.

Kuhn argues, however, that the Unified Farm Program, sponsored by the federal Farm Security Administration (FSA) from 1940 to 1942, benefited the standard of living of many Greene County farm families, including those often marginalized because of race or class. Among other things, Kuhn writes, the Unified Farm Program enabled farmers to cultivate gardens and preserve food.

Southern farmers often struggled with basic sustenance, mostly due to insecure land tenure. Kuhn notes that landowners discouraged tenants from growing vegetables, and debt-ridden sharecroppers rarely had incentive to improve land with fruit trees or gardens. In Greene County, the Unified Farm Program sought to improve rural diets by requiring FSA loan recipients to grow and can their own vegetables and to keep chickens and cows.

Kuhn writes that the program had a slow start. Many farm families did not have the knowledge or skills to garden and can. Kuhn asserts that men in particular hesitated to spend time and resources on noncommercial agriculture. Encouraged by home demonstrations, friendly competitions, and pride of accomplishment, however, the canning program proved to be successful. “Glass jars loaded with canned goods,” Kuhn writes, “soon filled the sharecropper cabins and new government-built houses of Greene County.”

The Unified Farm Program enjoyed only a short life. As World War II transitioned into the Cold War, national priorities changed. By the end of the decade, Kuhn notes, Congress discontinued the program. Nevertheless, Kuhn’s article identifies one New Deal program that helped improve the sustenance of rural people in the South, countering the typical story of farm life during the Great Depression.

Agricultural History is published by the Agricultural History Society, which has several food-related papers scheduled for its Annual Meeting in Banff (Alberta, Canada) this June. I’ll join Harvard University fellow and Babson College professor Frederick Douglass Opie, Mississippi State University professor Jason Morgan Ward, and Michigan State University graduate student Jewell Debnam on a panel called “The Politics of Food and Hunger in the Civil Rights Era.”

Citation: Clifford M. Kuhn, “‘It was a Long Way from Perfect, but it was Working’: The Canning and Home Production Initiatives in Greene County, Georgia, 1940-1942,” Agricultural History 86: no. 2 (Spring 2012): 68-90.